|Yes, some way, some how, this is a goddamn poster in India. Apparently social media memes about sexism in the media aren't a thing yet there or something.|
"As long as movies are in this fucking country, people will continue to be fooled."
The above line is said by an old man named Ramadhir who by the time he says it in this 5+ hour film-cum-miniseries has carved out a place for himself to rule. He doesn't have any sort of big empire, and for most of his life he's had the Khans on his back: he killed the grandfather (Shahid), who was really just a petty thief who had delusions of grandeur, then the father (Sardar, who shaves his head and won't grow any hair until he exacts revenge, so basically he'll be bald for quite some time), and then he has to contend with the father's sons, of which there are four by one wife and one by a "mistress" (and this son has the rather peculiar name of "Definite", and no, it's not a nickname, that's how it appears on the friggin birth certificate, if one exists).
But also by this time he's learned how to be shrewd and have his little nest-egg through being a confident and smart businessman, which is the one thing that doesn't really go in line with the Khan clan. They seem to be more about, oh, you know, violence and guns and the occasional (lots of) sex like with Sardar or the hash with Faizil, the latter takes over the Khan empire in the 2nd half of this series.
There's so much story that I could go through here that it would be fruitless to try. Suffice to say that this is why you use the word 'epic-length' to describe a crime series, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing (or always a great thing either). In short, it's a little like the Indian gangland version of the Hattfields vs the McCoys, where two rival families square off over a long, long period of time. However in the case of Gangs of Wasseypur it happens to be when this part of the country is in flux through history - first through the English giving up India and the country gaining independence, but then the factions of Muslims (and there's Hindus in there too, but mostly Muslims in this case) who splinter off into their own groups.
There are also rival industries up for grabs, largely to do with energy like coal, but also iron and other things. Needless to say for someone like Sardir Khan, who lives in the shadow of his father's lust for glory (and vengeance), it's tough not to try to take over. But what about the old man Ramadhir? We see the rise and fall of this family, and it comes technically in two parts (though on IMDb it is in one). The first section, and each runs 160 minutes (and in 8 40 minute chunks on Netflix), though the first episode gives the background on the early years of the Khan family with Shahid, it's really Sardir's show, and Manoj Bajpai steals any scene or moment he's in. There's some natural charisma to this actor that makes him stand out so much, and he takes this character who is a real FORCE, whether he's trying to be seductive to the ladies (those scenes where he gets to Durga, played by Reema Sen, are wonderful), or being a don't-give-a-fuck gangster.
Other actors are really good too, but the thing about the first half is that it has so much story but it feels like it goes in fits and starts. At times it's very compelling, and at other times the director, Kashyap, is indulging so much in the over-abundance of what he can do with the camera and editing (sometimes it's fun with the long takes, other times with slow-motion not so much). I kept wondering where this story would really not so much finally hit lift off, but go into something a little more compelling than the basic ethos: violence begets violence. Ok, we get it, what else is there? How about some extra stakes or exploring what else the city of Waseypur or the surrounding areas have to offer?
It surprised me that it actually was the second half of the 'film', and this is after Sardar gets gunned down and the sons have to take control of this piece that the Khans have carved out, that it starts to get intriguing and messier in a good way. What happens when, as the times are changing into the 90's and 00's, that other gangs, simple start-ups that don't have much to do with the Khans or the "Sultan" or Ramadhir and just want to be bad mothereffers? Or what about politics and the police? How does an election work in this society if people can just vote and pose in burkas? We also get to see what happens with the younger siblings of Faizal, who, without a real father but the sort of "dreams" and aspirations of being in the gangster-dom of this low-down Indian world, step up and try to be badasses, to greater or lessor extents.
I actually expected from the way the second half was going to like the film more than I ultimately did. I think that it was the last 40 minutes or so, following the fate of the Sultan, that things started to dip back down for me, as the narration got to be too much (which up till then was sporadic and alright in that pseudo-City-of-God-Scorsese sense) and the director went SO into over-drive with the violence - yes, even compared to before, and it gets pretty bloody and unapologetic about it, which is refreshing in its way - and more in some sleazy, Troy Duffy kind of presentation. It's one thing to try and show the realities (or close to it) of the criminal underworld of this world of Wasseypur, and another to just become all about how many times someone can be plugged full of bullets in slow-motion set to a wild-and-crazy soundtrack.
But for the misgivings I have about the climax, it's still worth seeking out and I wasn't sure going in quite what to expect; Bollywood is often slapped with a certain type, and I've seen a few other movies that conform to the expectation of over-long (which this may be) and convoluted storytelling with a myriad of characters and a metric-ton of musical numbers. I think the director is more after something closer to what one might see in the Hollywood system of action thrillers, but there is still room and space for wall-to-wall soundtracking and a kind of halfway meeting of a musical as people sometimes sing (or, uh, lip-sync I guess) to songs there, but organically tied to the drama, so it's different in that way.